Jittery Republicans pressuring Bush on Iraq policy shift

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Nervous Senate Republicans beseeched the White House without apparent success Wednesday for a quick change in course on Iraq as congressional Democrats insisted on high-profile votes calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by spring.

Prospects for a less-sweeping, bipartisan challenge to President Bush suffered a setback when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the leading proposal has “less teeth than a toothless tiger.”

Taken together, the events pointed toward a 10-day period of politically charged maneuvering in the Senate. Democrats will push for a withdrawal, White House’s allies will resist and a small but growing collection of Republicans – most of them facing re-election in 2008 – is caught in the middle.

“I’m hopeful they (White House officials) change their minds,” Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said after meeting with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley .

There was no evidence of that – and the House GOP leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, was biting in his criticism of Republicans who have parted company with Bush on the war. “Wimps,” he called them in closed-door comments confirmed by an aide.

Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon became the first Republican to declare on the Senate floor that he will vote for Democratic-drafted legislation that orders a troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days, to be concluded by April 30, 2008.

Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., also said Wednesday they will vote for the measure, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she has not ruled out joining them.

Bush, one day after ruling out talk of any shift in strategy before fall, met at the White House with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Both lawmakers emerged saying that the administration’s troop buildup had produced progress and deserved a chance to work, at least until Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, produces a widely anticipated report on the war in September.

The White House owes Congress an interim report later this week on the progress that the Iraqi government has made toward meeting a series of political, military and economic goals.

One senior U.S. official said the report will judge that the Iraqi government has partially met some objectives, failed to achieve others, and completed action on a few requirements for upgrading its military.

In a downbeat assessment, the nation’s top intelligence analyst told Congress during the day that the troop increase had not created conditions that would allow the country’s various groups to reconcile their deep differences.

“They (the violence levels) have not yet been reduced significantly,” Tom Fingar told the House Armed Services Committee.

There were signs of crumbling Republican support for the president’s war policy at every turn – although Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said that so far, not enough to allow administration critics to prevail.

GOP officials said Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and McCain had engaged in a brief but spirited debate Tuesday at a closed-door meeting attended by Vice President Dick Cheney. These officials said Voinovich dismissed the warnings that al-Qaida terrorists represented a threat in Iraq, adding that left to their own, the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq would both turn on the outsiders and drive them from the country.

McCain disagreed, said these officials, and painted a stark picture of the ramifications of a U.S. troop withdrawal. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversations were supposed to be private.

Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon became the first Republican to declare on the Senate floor that he will vote for Democratic-drafted legislation that orders a troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days, to be concluded by April 30, 2008.

Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., have also said they will vote for the measure, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she has not ruled out joining them.

Most Democrats are expected to support the legislation, but Republican opponents have vowed to block a final vote, and they appeared to have enough strength to do so.

The compromise legislation, backed by a bipartisan group of 12 lawmakers, draws on a report issued last winter by the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker, a Republican, and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana.

Among its provisions is a goal of removing most U.S. combat brigades by the first quarter of 2008, with the exception of troops needed to train Iraqi forces, protect U.S. assets and conduct counterterrorism operations.

Reid spoke dismissively of the measure at a news conference. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has not been critical of the proposal, but nor is he a supporter.

Without the active support of either Reid or McConnell, the party leaders, the prospects of the measure succeeding are poor, particularly since it likely will need 60 votes to advance.

Across the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unexpectedly announced Tuesday night that the House will vote later this week on legislation requiring a troop withdrawal.

Republicans were critical. “The fact is Democrats have offered no plan for success in Iraq, indeed no plan at all other than to leave the country to radical jihadists like al-Qaida,” Boehner said in a written statement.

The decision by Pelosi, as well as Reid’s criticism of a potential compromise, underscored the potential political peril for Republicans facing votes on a war that has become deeply unpopular with the public 16 months before the 2008 elections.

There were indications of their concern on several fronts, from Smith’s speech on the Senate floor, to the presence of a half-dozen or so GOP senators at the meeting with Hadley, to the compromise effort that has drawn the support of six Republicans to date. Among them are Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine and Domenici, all of whom face the voters in 2008, as well as Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, a member of the GOP leadership.

At a news conference, McConnell sidestepped questions about the political impact on Republicans of the war debate.

Instead, he said he was pleased that the GOP had held firm against a proposal to assure fixed periods of time at home between deployments for troops. The measure, advanced by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., had a majority, 56-41, but fell four short of the 60 votes needed to advance.

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Associated Press writers Anne Flaherty and Katherine Shrader contributed to this report.

AP-ES-07-11-07 1905EDT

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